I first met Alejandro Santiago in my gallery in 1989. He was 25 years old, shy and soft spoken. At that time he showed me a number of small etchings of very high quality. When I asked the price he told me twenty five dollars each. I told him they were of very high quality but that it was not a sound business proposition for me.
From that point forward Alejandro and I formed a wonderful partnership and friendship lasting seventeen years, meeting regularly in San Francisco, Oaxaca and Paris.
Over the years the Bond Latin Gallery purchased over 400 works of art by Alejandro Santiago. The Gallery curated numerous shows and the first to sponsor and support “2501 Migrantes”. It was with great sadness that in early 2008 we saw a dramatic decrease in the once exceptional quality of the works by Alejandro. The magic was gone. The effects of the diabetes on his eyesight and the alcohol seemed to have taken a dramatic toll on the artist and his work.
The Earlier Works (1991-2007)
Wherever Alejandro lived he absorbed his environment and translated it with ease, freshness and clarity onto canvas, paper or amate. He chose carefully the medium that best expressed his vision. Whether the shamanistic imagery seen in his early amate, cochenille and encaustics, or, the sophisticated oils from his period in Paris showing his complete understanding of both modernism and primitivism.
Many people who knew us both were confused that Alejandro and I could spend so many days and weeks together, as I could not speak Spanish and Alejandro had no English. Recognizing each other’s limitations, we created our own very limited vocabulary. Whenever we reached an impasse Alejandro would simply say “Mas mescal” and that would clear or resolve any misunderstanding. Little did I know that mescal would in the end destroy both our relationship and lead to Alejandro’s untimely and tragic death.
He commented that Alejandro had two main influences; the male warrior and the female spiritual healer. I recognized the male warrior influence immediately as Alejandro’s father; who Alejandro had told me was a teacher and leader in his community, who, in the past had fearlessly fought against the government for the rights of the indigenous people of Oaxaca. However, I could not immediately identify the female spiritual healer as Alejandro’s mother, although a wonderful woman she was certainly not the one. I then remembered the early amate paintings by Alejandro that were predominantly influenced by the time Alejandro spent with his grandmother who was the pueblo’s healer and was obviously the other great influence the Buddhist monk spoke of. These two influences made obvious sense to me has I had always seen both an ethereal serenity in Alejandro’s work as well as a creative violent energy.
Ironically Alejandro’s father and grandmother were not only influential in his life but also his death.
The Birth of 2501 Migrants
In the year 2000 I visited Alejandro’s studio and was like so many times before, amazed and stunned by his latest works. In the courtyard of his studio were seven clay figures. They were breathtaking aboriginal like figures, modeled by a contemporary sorcerer. These were the inceptive works that would some years later become “2501 Migrantes”.
The “2501 Migrantes” project although maintaining the artist’s original concept, did, like all creative works and ideas changed somewhat in the process of creation. The figures spoke back and demanded their own message and direction.
It is obvious that the 2501 figures, visually, were inspired by the early seven works from the year 2000. However, the number 2501 was spawned originally by Alejandro’s experience as an illegal alien crossing the border into the U.S.A. This he did to experience personally the dangerous journey of the migrant.
During this journey, Alejandro was painfully moved by the number of crosses at the border marking the deaths of immigrants who continually died in the attempt. The official number of deaths at that time was approximately 2,500. Alejandro then added the “1” saying, “There will always be one more”. The original plan for the “2501 Migrantes” was to line all 2501 at the border between Mexico and the U.S.A.
WHICH WAY SHOULD THEY FACE – NORTH OR SOUTH
Later as the clay migrants found their voice Alejandro realized that the project was not just about the soul destroying voyage of the migrant, but the devastating effect on the communities like his own that had remained intact and vibrant for hundreds of years. Alejandro witnessed the disintegration of not only his village, but of many other villages in Oaxaca disappearing and becoming ghost villages and towns as the communities moved north leaving forever their ancestral homes.
It was at this point that Alejandro changed the message slightly. He made it both more poignant and personal. The 2501 became the lost souls from his village who had disappeared predominantly due to the N.A.F.T.A. Treaty, that allowed U.S. subsidized corn into the Oaxaca valley, destroying the local farming economy.
In 2003 documentary film maker, Patricia van Ryker, saw the early sculptures from 2000 in my gallery. Patricia and her partner Ron Colby understood the significance immediately and travelling to Oaxaca in 2004 began their five year relationship with Alejandro, creating the project’s only official documentary “Twenty Five Hundred & One" (www.twentyfivehundredandone.com). This documentary is without doubt the most important and relevant record of Alejandro’s project that is so significant to so many people. Not just the Mexican immigrants who came across the border, but all immigrants who share the migrant experience. It is interesting to note that while living in Paris in the nineties, Alejandro created a series of cochenille paintings based on the migrants escaping the brutality in the former Yugoslavia.
I used to affectionately call Alejandro “Diablo”. However, I think the title of a Ken Russell movie best portrays Alejandro Santiago, that of “Savage Messiah”.
“Goodbye my friend” - Alejandro
Alejandro Santiago’s work will feature in the Crocker Museum, Sacramento California in the show “Arte Mexicano”.